A summation of each party’s poll promises, these manifestos are a checklist aimed at giving the party an electoral advantage over the others. This year, both Dravidian majors are attempting to outdo one another with their set of assurances to the public, if voted to power. Ranging from essentials, like affordable housing and nutrition to comforts such as washing machines, free Wi-Fi and two-wheelers, the parties are leaving no stone unturned, to appease the electorate.
For instance, the ruling party’s 163-point manifesto was unveiled on Sunday with a range of populist schemes that included government jobs; six free LPG cylinders for households; cash hand-outs to homemakers, senior citizens and the differently abled; 50 pc concessional travel for women in town buses as well as a year-long maternity leave for government staffers. The DMK’s manifesto includes increasing reservation for women in government jobs, subsidies for rickshaw drivers, measures to ban NEET, and some radical protectionism involving reservation of 75 per cent jobs for locals in private enterprises in Tamil Nadu.
These promises have raised concerns from economists who believe incurring such costs at a time when the pandemic has wrecked the economy, would set TN’s expenditure at over 25 per cent of its annual budget. Experts say the monthly income of Rs 1,000-1,500 for all ration card-holding women, coupled with the free gas cylinders could easily set the state back by Rs 40,000 cr to Rs 45,000 cr annually, which is about 15 to 16 per cent of its total budget expenditure. Throw in freebies which make up for 10 per cent of TN’s budget expenditure and it’s a net 25 pc over our total budgetary allowance of Rs 2.6 lakh crore.
In February, Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, presented the budget and said the state’s net outstanding debt was estimated to be Rs 4.85 lakh crore and as of March 31, 2022, it could touch 5.7 lakh crore. The state’s debt-GSDP ratio as of March 31, 2021 is set to be 24.98 pc and as of March 31, 2020 will be 26.69 pc, well within the norms prescribed by the 15th Finance Commission. The decline in its revenue had caused the state to rely on borrowings to meet the demands of its health and welfare department during COVID, as well as to pay off pensions and salaries of government staffers. It may be recalled that in 2006, when DMK’s M Karunanidhi came into power, he unleashed welfare measures including the distribution of free colour TVs. In 2011, Jayalalithaa expanded the schemes to include laptops, mixer grinders, in turn canvassing her vote bank of women, which ensured an unprecedented win for her in the 2016 elections as well. It was also after the year 2012-2013, that Tamil Nadu transformed from a revenue surplus state into a revenue deficit state.
Keeping in mind the promises made by the ruling party during the last election season, the AIADMK has scored on removing jallikattu restrictions, ensuring the disbursal of Rs 40,000 crore in crop loans over five years, free electricity units for households and enterprises, the implementation of the kudimaramathu scheme, considered one of their crowning achievements. What has been left untouched is an equally long list of promises. The government is yet to take up the distribution of cellphones to ration cardholders, phased prohibition and dual citizenship to Lankan refugees. The Global Investors Meet, meant to be a flagship programme to drive investments into TN was supposed to be biennial, and it’s just happened once. It’s not fair to lay the blame of unkept promises on the efficiency of the ruling party in a year when the economy was ravaged by the impact of the pandemic. But that’s also why it would augur better for political parties to curb their manifesto enthusiasm and opt for a strategy of repair and restore, rather than rewards.